Three things to Know: Breaking down East playoff race

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Breaking down East playoff race

Unlike the wide-open West, the Eastern Conference has settled into pretty clear tiers in the playoff race. Still, there are some races to follow with just three weeks until the play-in tournament starts. Let’s break it down, and start by looking at the standings.

• No.1 seed: The Milwaukee Bucks have this as long as they don’t trip on the way to the finish line. The Bucks have a 2.5-game lead (three in the loss column) over Boston with 11 games to play, and the Bucks don’t have a particularly difficult schedule. The road to the Finals will go through Milwaukee this season, and maybe more importantly, getting the top seed keeps the Celtics and 76ers on the other side of the bracket.

• No.2-3 seeds: Boston and Philadelphia are in a race for the two-seed and home court in the second round (although the two seed could have the more dangerous first-round matchup if Miami is seventh, more on that later). The 76ers have the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, another advantage for the Celtics in holding on to the No.2 seed and being home in the second round.

The 76ers slipped to third after their double overtime loss to the Bulls on Monday where the teams combined to shoot 25% from 3. It was not James Harden‘s night (2-of-14 shooting, but with 12 dimes) and when Joel Embiid fouled out in the second overtime the game was all but over.

• No.4-5 seeds: This appears locked in — we are going to have New York vs. Cleveland in the first round. The Cavaliers have the No.4 seed by three games and the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, they’d completely have to fall apart for the Knicks to get home court in the first round. The gritty Knicks, with Jalen Brunson back in the rotation, have a two-game cushion to hold on to the No.5 seeds, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. Tom Thibodeau deserves credit for getting as much out of this roster as possible — and the Knicks will be a tough first-round out.

• No.6-7 seeds: Brooklyn is clinging to the final playoff spot, but the Heat are just one game back (two in the loss column). There are games one watches the Heat and thinks, “this team is catching the Nets,” like the recent win over Memphis. Then they go out and look flat against the Bulls and it’s hard to picture this team avoiding the play-in. The Nets after the trade deadline are a .500 team, but can the Heat play up to their potential and pass them? Or will Miami keep shooting itself in the foot?

• No. 8-10 seeds: The Hawks, Raptors and Bulls are all within a game of each other and it’s going to be a race to see who gets the eighth seed and has to only win one game to get out of the play-in and into the playoffs. Atlanta has the easiest schedule of the three, but the Bulls have been the hottest team with wins over the Heat and 76ers recently. All three are destined for the play-in unless one collapses, but getting the eighth seed matters.

• No.11-12 seeds: The Wizards and Pacers will need some help — and to help themselves — to get into the play-in. Making up a couple of games with 11 to play is a big ask and it means getting on a run and winning games, and Indiana has the second toughest remaining schedule in the East. fivethirtyeight.com gives the Wizards a 5% chance of making the playoffs, so it’s not impossible, but they need Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis to carry them to a lot of wins the rest of the way, then get a little help from a team above them.

2) Julius Randle puts on a show with 57, it’s not enough against hot-shooting Wolves

This game was a shooting clinic.

The night’s high scorer was the Knicks’ Julius Randle, who finished the game with 57 points, while hitting 8-of-14 from 3, knocking down shots that should have come with extra points for the degree of difficulty. He was impressive.

Then there was the Timberwolves, who were more balanced but equally hot, shooting better than 70% as a team in the first half. They also had Taurean Prince — getting the minutes of the injured Anthony Edwards — who was 8-of-8 on 3-pointers and finished with 35 points.

It was close and dramatic late, but the Timberwolves held on for a 140-134 win. This is a quality win for a Timberwolves team fighting to hand on to a top-eight seed in the West (and an easier path out of the play-in).

3) Warriors win on the road! (It still counts if its Houston)

The Warriors needed a road win, they got a road win. Who cares if it came against the team with the worst record in the West, it counts just the same. Stephen Curry was doing Stephen Curry things on his way to 30 points and the Warriors got the 121-108 win in Houston.

Klay Thompson added 29 for Golden State, which slid above Dallas (losers in Memphis) and into the No.5 seed in the West with the victory. Big showdown is coming Wednesday when the Warriors head to Dallas and face those Mavericks (Luka Dončić could be back for that game).

Milwaukee Bucks reportedly to hire Adrian Griffin as head coach

Detroit Pistons v Toronto Raptors
Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images
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Buzz had been growing for a week that Raptors assistant coach Adrian Griffin was the favorite Bucks coaching candidate of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Nick Nurse had his backers in the organization, but in a superstar-driven league, the wishes of players like the Greek Freak hold a lot of sway (especially with him up for a new contract in a couple of years).

The Milwaukee Bucks are reportedly hiring Griffin as their next head coach, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This reaction from Fred VanVleet should tell you all you need to know about how the Raptors players felt about Griffin.

This hire is a gamble by the Bucks, turning the keys of a contender over to a rookie coach, but Griffin is more than deserving of a shot. Griffin spent eight years as a role player in the NBA — after going undrafted out of Seton Hall hand having to play in the Philipines — and then got into coaching, starting as an assistant in Milwaukee from 2008-2010. Griffin is seen as a defensive-first coach with a strong player development background (he worked with Jimmy Butler in Chicago). He’s been at or near the top of the “guys who deserve a shot” list for years and was in consideration for the open Raptors job in Toronto.

Instead, he now takes over a contender, although with a roster that is getting older and more expensive fast (free agent center Brook Lopez turns 35 this year, Khris Middleton is 31 and has a $40.4 million player option, Jrue Holiday is 31 and extension eligible come the fall).

Griffin will replace Mike Budenholzer, who was let go despite winning a championship with this team in 2021. Budenholzer is a process guy and was considered too rigid and slow to make adjustments in the playoffs, and this year’s first-round elimination by the No. 8 seed Miami Heat was seen as the culmination of that (even though Antetokounmpo missed two games due to a back injury). Griffin will bring a different voice and some new looks to a Bucks team still in its championship window.

Don’t be surprised if the Bucks hire a former NBA head coach to be Griffin’s lead assistant, to give him a veteran voice as a sounding board.

Nurse had been considered one of the frontrunners for this job, but now looks like someone destined to land in Philadelphia or Phoenix.

Heat guard Gabe Vincent reportedly to play in Game 6

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Officially, Heat guard Gabe Vincent is listed as questionable for a critical Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday night. He missed Game 5 due to a sprained ankle suffered late in Game 4 but was a partial participant in Saturday’s shootaround, according to Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel.

However, a report from Ben Rohrbach of Yahoo Sports points to what everyone expects: Vincent will play in Game 6.

Miami needs him back if they are going to win Game 6 at home and end this series (the Heat lead the series 3-2).

Not just because Vincent has averaged 17.5 points per game this series, but because of his ball handling and shot creation. In the second half of Game 4 and through Game 5, the Celtics changed their defensive game plan, becoming aggressive at jumping passing lanes, bringing doubles on drivers, and trying to force turnovers. During the regular season the Celtics were a bottom-five team in forcing turnovers by design — they bet that their impressive one-on-one defenders could make shots difficult and so off-ball defenders largely stayed home on guys off the ball and didn’t take risks. That changed and Miami struggled to adjust in Game 5, with Kyle Lowry — starting in place of Vincent — having three costly early turnovers.

Vincent back in the lineup could help counter the Celtics’ defense. Miami also needs great games from Jimmy Butler (who looked tired in Game 5) and Bam Adebayo, who also had an off game in Boston.

The Heat want no part of a Game 7, they need to close this series out Saturday night. They need Vincent to do that.

Coaching carousel update: Nick Nurse has strong, not universal, support in Milwaukee

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Five open coaching jobs remain around the NBA: Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors and Detroit Pistons.

Here is the latest on the searches to fill those openings.

• Nick Nurse may be the first domino to fall with him having drawn interest from the Suns, Bucks and 76ers. Nurse has strong support in Milwaukee, but it’s not universal, reports Ian Begley of SNY.tv.

So it’s worth noting that, as of earlier this week, Nick Nurse’s candidacy had strong support within the organization. Though not all key stakeholders in Milwaukee were aligned on Nurse, per SNY sources.

• Nurse has interviewed in Phoenix as well. Their top target was current Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, according to multiple reports, but Begley reinforces what has been reported here at NBC Sports and other places: The Clippers are not expected to part ways with Lue. Even if they do, the Clippers will not let their coach walk to a division rival in Phoenix.

• Momentum appears to be building behind Suns’ assistant coach Kevin Young getting a promotion in Phoenix, with Marc Stein reporting he got a key endorsement.

Word is Young, who has also interviewed for the head coaching vacancies in Milwaukee and Toronto, has received a strong endorsement from Suns star Devin Booker.

• It would be risky to put a first-time head coach in charge of a contender in Phoenix. If new owner Mat Ishbia goes that route, look for the Suns to get a former NBA head coach to be his assistant (don’t be surprised to see that in Boston next season as well, where Joe Mazzulla is expected to remain as coach).

• Nurse, former Nets’ head coach and current Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson, and Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin remain the finalists for the Bucks head coaching job. Stein reports Giannis Antetokounmpo is “intrigued” by Griffin.

• Toronto’s coaching search could be influenced by which direction team president Masai Ujiri decides to take the roster, something else up in the air. From ESPN’s Brian Windhorst on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM).

“In talking to folks that have been in touch with the Raptors recently, the Raptors don’t seem to know which direction they’re going to take. Whether or not they are going to focus on re-signing Fred VanVleet, extending Pascal Siakam, potentially making other roster upgrades. Or whether or not they’re going to send Fred VanVleet in a sign-and-trade, maybe investigate moving other players be it OG Anunoby or Pascal Siakam.”

• Multiple reports have Bucks’ assistant Charles Lee and former UConn coach Kevin Ollie as the frontrunners to be the next head coach in Detroit. Pistons’ ownership reportedly backed the Brinks truck up to Monty Williams’ house but he was not interested, Stein reported. The buzz has been that GM Troy Weaver is backing Ollie.

• The only coaching vacancy filled so far this offseason is Ime Udoka taking the job as the Rockets’ head coach.

Karl Malone pulls in $5 million with auction of 1992 Dream Team memorabilia

USA Men's Basketball Team vs Croatia, 1992 Summer Olympics
Richard Mackson /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images
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At one of Karl Malone’s car dealerships in Utah, the Hall of Famer used to display some of his memorabilia from the 1992 Dream Team — game-worn jerseys from Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, among other items.

Wednesday night, Malone auctioned off 24 pieces of that memorabilia, netting him a cool $5 million, something reported by Darren Rovell at the Action Network.

The biggest seller was a game-worn Michael Jordan jersey from the USA’s 127-76 thrashing of Lithuania in the medal round, it went for more than $3 million.

Other items sold include $360,000 for a Larry Bird game-worn jersey and $230,400 for a Charles Barkley uniform.